Tag Archives: mockumentaries

I’m Still Here

I'm Still Here

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 10 January 2011

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Casey Affleck

Writers: Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Sean Combs

USA 2010

108 mins

Few mockumentaries have received as much media attention as I’m Still Here, although this is largely due to the manner in which the press was coerced into participating in the project: in late 2008, movie star Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was retiring from acting to pursue a music career, a statement that was swiftly reported by entertainment news programmes and the celebrity-obsessed blogosphere. Phoenix received Academy Award nominations for his performances as a Roman emperor in Gladiator (2000) and as country singer Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), while maintaining independent credentials through his frequent collaborations with writer-director James Gray. If he had yet to achieve megastar status - an increasingly unrealistic expectation for any actor in a movie-making era dominated by special effects-heavy franchises - Phoenix was certainly well-known enough for his ‘retirement’ to fuel the rumour mill: was this a very public breakdown, or a hoax, or a genuine desire to try a different form of self-expression? The media further speculated on the actor’s professional shift when Phoenix performed his latest rap material at a Las Vegas club in early 2009, with his friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck filming his set for a documentary project that would be titled I’m Still Here. Writing for the Chicago Sun Times in September 2010, Robert Ebert described the film as ‘a sad and painful documentary’, dealing with a ‘gifted actor who apparently by his own decision has brought desolation upon his head’. Ebert also noted ‘subtle signs’ that I’m Still Here may be ‘part of an elaborate hoax’.

The suspicions of Ebert and other critics were proved correct when Affleck explained the intentions of his collaboration with Phoenix in a number of interviews that followed the theatrical release of I’m Still Here; they wanted to explore the nature of celebrity, commenting on the relationship that both audiences and journalists have with stars in the era of new media and reality television. What their mockumentary actually observes is a breakdown in such relations, as Phoenix becomes increasingly isolated due to intense media attention. He begins the film by claiming to feel trapped in ‘a self-imposed prison of characterisation’ due to the mass perception that he is ’emotional, intense and complicated’, an identity that he concedes to creating through his choice of roles but one that he feels has been exaggerated through media pigeonholing. As he no longer wants to ‘play the character of Joaquin’, Phoenix abandons his acting career to record rap music, with Sean Combs producing his debut album and live performances scheduled in Las Vegas. Industry commentators do not wait to listen to any material before passing judgment, labelling this choice as career suicide, while ridiculing the ‘former’ actor’s increasingly unkempt appearance as Phoenix goes from svelte leading man to bearded rapper with noticeable weight gain. He becomes a laughing stock in Hollywood, alienates his ‘general assistant’ Antony (Spacehog guitarist Antony Langdon) and gets into a fight while performing to an audience that is more interested in capturing a falling star with their camera phones than in listening to his lyrics.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that I’m Still Here is a ruse, albeit a well-conceived one: scenes of Phoenix ordering hookers and snorting drugs are calculated self-destruction staples that are designed to shock, and interactions with other performers often feel contrived. Ben Stiller visits Phoenix at his Los Angeles home to pitch Greenberg (2010), suggesting that the ‘retired’ actor should play the supporting role eventually undertaken by Rhys Ifans, only to be accused of ‘doing Ben Stiller’ by Phoenix, who no longer cares for Hollywood pleasantries. With comedy star Stiller cast in his familiar straight man role to Phoenix’s imploding artist and dialogue that references Stiller’s earlier success There’s Something about Mary (1998), their meeting plays more like a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm than a genuine conversation. The centrepiece of I’m Still Here is not Phoenix’s rap performance - we hear some of his material, but never a full track - but his now legendary appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman to promote his ‘final’ film Two Lovers (2008). It’s an exercise in awkward humour as Phoenix seems to be more interested in the gum in his mouth than discussing his work, only becoming slightly engaged when Letterman brings up the subject of his rap music. ‘I’d like to come on the show and perform,’ offers Phoenix, only for Letterman to deliver the put-down, ‘That seems unlikely’. Phoenix manages a few chuckles at the expense of the host, but Letterman gets the last laugh - ‘I’ll come to your house and chew gum.’

Phoenix disappears into ‘character’ as he becomes distanced from those around him due to media ridicule. Although he turns to music to escape the artifice of acting, Phoenix finds the rap world to be similar to Hollywood: Sean Combs states that both movies and music revolve around the circus of production, while the audience that Phoenix is trying to reach may change, but reactions to his celebrity status do not. He eventually retreats from public view, travelling to Panama to spend time with his father and, in the parting shot, disappears underwater while swimming. The three-word title of I’m Still Here recalls not only D.A. Pennebaker‘s classic Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (1967) but also Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007), a fictionalised deconstruction of Dylan’s ever-changing persona, with media reaction to Phoenix as rap star exemplifying a celebrity culture that now forbids such multi-faceted behaviour. In this respect, the process of making I’m Still Here had more impact than the completed film as it received a brief theatrical run that grossed a mere $568,963 worldwide, suggesting that the cultural and economic value of artists or celebrities as ‘public commodities’ is greater than that of their actual work. A clean-shaven, slimmed-down Phoenix would return to the Letterman show to discuss the film, thereby re-establishing his movie star identity through the promotional process. I’m Still Here is technically a mockumentary, but the manner in which its subject unravels due to media scrutiny makes it a painfully real portrait of a creative spirit in crisis.

John Berra

A Man Vanishes

A Man Vanishes

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 October 2011

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Shôhei Imamura

Writer: Shôhei Imamura, Kôji Numata

Original story by: Akiyuki Nosaka

Original title: Ningen jôhatsu

Cast: Yoshie Hayakawa, Shôhei Imamura, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi

Japan 1967

130 mins

Mockumentaries have hit a rich vein of late, with the is-she-or-isn’t-she flirtation with truth and lies, the fact, fiction or faction of I Am Still Here, Cat Fish and Exit through the Gift Shop; the pranking of Borat and Bruno and the revival of the found footage horror genre of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Much of this can be traced to the nefarious activities of Endemol, and their swinish exploitation of reality to serve up Reality(TM), the human sacrifice (vote who to eliminate!), the pseudo-religious, cod-psychology rituals of the confessional and the gutting of any sense of distinction between the private and the public. Add to this our own starring in social networking sites and the fact that the political event of the decade resembled a set piece from a tent pole Hollywood movie but filmed in a way that anticipated Cloverfield. Jean Baudrillard couldn’t have written a better script for the noughties, the decade that made navel-gazing an internationally popular sport and gave us Saddam Hussein’s execution filmed on a camera phone and uploaded to YouTube.

It perhaps will come as a surprise then that over 40 years ago, Shôhei Imamura created the quintessential mockumentary, A Man Vanishes, a film essay revealing with cunning wit precisely these concerns and anticipating the traps of reality for filmmakers. In 1965, a plastic salesman, Tadashi Oshima, goes missing. There are many possible motives - guilt over an embezzlement at work, which was discovered and probably stymied his chances of promotion, the impending marriage to an overbearing fiancée. We are told that 90,000 Japanese men disappear every year, responding to social claustrophobia, work pressure and the watchful family. It is two years after the fact and a documentary crew, with the aid of Oshima’s fiancée - known as ‘the Rat’ - are on his trail. They try to reconstruct the events leading up to his disappearance, interviewing his family, his various girlfriends, his boss and workmates, and even a medium. We find out details of his life: he was a heavy drinker, successful with the ladies, used a lot of pomade on his hair. The crew often resort to hidden cameras and provocation of dubious ethical grounding. The pace of the film is insistent and driven, conversations and interviews overlap and fall out of synch with the images, still pictures are used and little black oblongs ostensibly preserve anonymity, but actually feel more like a stain of admitted guilt.

And yet for all the busyness and activity, Oshima is elusive. In fact, it is the very investigation itself - as indicated by the present tense of the title A Man Vanishes, not, as might be expected after two years have passed, ‘A Man Vanished’ - that erases his existence. He ceases to be a human being and becomes a missing person poster, an enigma, paradoxically flattened by the process of documentation. He now exists in Reality, and no longer reality.

The film begins to lose interest in him anyway and seems more concerned with revealing and examining its own methodology. The documentary makers meet like a secret cabal, a paranoiac’s worst nightmare. Their apparent objectivity is compromised by their obvious wish to manipulate and produce a good story. ‘It has to be more like an investigative film,’ the director (Imamura himself) mutters at one point. They use subtitles, not only to tell you who people are in relation to Oshima, but to pass on their own judgements. Why is Oshima’s fiancée known as the Rat? They become increasingly intrusive in the film as the investigation (like an investigation, but not actually an investigation) gets stuck on a hypothesis suggested in the interview with the medium. Was the Rat’s sister having an affair with Oshima? A tense dinner is arranged, which seems like one of those Big Brother moments when the contestants decide to have it out, and during which the sister (aka the Witch) is confronted with both the accusations and a witness (constantly referred to as the Fishmonger) who saw them together.

At this point, Imamura decisively intervenes, literally tearing the walls down and admitting the film to be a fiction, but the slipperiness of the construct and even the admission of fictionality doesn’t stop the film from its relentless pursuit of some larger meaning. This ‘meaning’ has completely erased the man of the title. In fact, if the man just turned up, the film would still go on searching for the ‘meaning’ that is only significant via its absence. It is no coincidence that the street argument that concludes the film (and which anticipates Jerry Springer’s spawn), as well as the argument at the dinner, hinges entirely on the veracity (or otherwise) of two mutually contradictory witnesses. Someone has to be lying for someone to be telling the truth. In fact, even Imamura’s confession that the film is a fiction is to some extent a lie. Oshima did exist and did disappear and the two sisters were real, though the Rat was paid a salary to appear in the film.

The intriguing sequel to this is the fact that Imamura went on to spend the next 10 years working exclusively on television documentaries. It’s almost as if A Man Vanishes represents a cautionary preface, an admission of the problematics before dedicating what was to be a significant chunk of his career to that strange and stained genre.

John Bleasdale